Arizona women tend to suffer from breast cancer less than the national average.
Experts and care and screening advocates say that’s part of why Arizona women sometimes let their guard down.
Dee Kapaska Baginski is founder of the Courage Under Cancer Foundation. It’s a small, all-volunteer organization based in Apache Junction that helps support cancer patients with finances and other needs while going through treatment.
“I’ve read that medical debt is the leading cause of bankruptcies in Arizona,” she said. “A lot of Arizonans don’t realize how much cancer treatment costs and how much everything else, from prescriptions to missed work/occupation time, adds up.”
October has been known Breast Cancer Awareness Month since the American Cancer Society formed a partnership with a pharmaceutical company in 1985 and enlisted former First Lady Betty Ford as a survivor who could implore women to get mammograms.
In 2022, with COVID-19 and its event postponements and cancellations mostly in the past, volunteers seem eager to resume rallies, walks, runs and other events designed to promote women’s health and early mammograms.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say breast cancer is the most common form of the disease diagnosed in women. It’s the second-leading killer of American women, behind heart disease.
In a five-year cancer report released in January, the Arizona Department of Health said the top five types of cancer diagnosed 2015-19 were female breast, lung and bronchus, prostate, colorectal and melanoma (skin). In 2019, breast was the most commonly diagnosed type of cancer in Arizona, with the average age of 65 for first diagnosis.
From 2016 to 2020, according to ADHS, breast cancer killed about 18 Arizona women per 100,000 for an average of 851 deaths per year.
A University of Michigan study shows simply being a woman is the main risk factor for developing breast cancer. Even though women have many more breast cells than men, the main reason they develop more breast cancer is gender.
Women’s breast cells are constantly exposed to the growth-promoting effects of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone, the study says.
One woman’s journey
Baginski was first diagnosed with cancer in February 2018. More cancer was found in her stomach lining in September 2019. Recently diagnosed with cancer a third time, she vows to beat it again.
“I want to make a difference,” Baginski said, describing why she started the Courage Under Cancer Foundation. “It seems after first diagnosis, a lot of people are forgotten. It is so expensive to treat cancer, and someone could quickly burn through their savings, the equity in their home and even have trouble paying basic monthly bills.”
Baginski said she contacted the American Cancer Society to start a Relay for Life event team in the Apache Junction area, but couldn’t get a response. She started the foundation in response. It now has a full governing board, including a board president and treasurer.
Courage Under Cancer has its second-annual fashion show Nov. 6. A March 3K and 5K run will serve as the foundation’s other main fundraiser.
“We send back out 95% of what we take in,” Baginski said. “And, at this point, I’ve been able to (personally) talk with everyone we’ve helped.”
Baginski said she hopes to find a business partner for the all-volunteer foundation, such as Under Armour or the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“My vision also includes a 24-hour call service to support cancer patients, as well as hiring a nutritionist,” she said. “But I don’t think foundations need brick-and-mortar buildings anymore.”
A sister and a caregiver
Sandra and Tina Parkinson don’t need to do technical research to find cancer patients — and fatalities — in their family.
Their mother died of cancer at age 62. So did their grandmother. Their father made it through arduous oral cancer treatments only to die of a heart attack in 2020. Aunts and nieces have had bouts with cancer, with various outcomes.
Sandra Parkinson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 at age 31, leading to a mastectomy. She’s remained in full remission since March 2006, getting more involved with Relay for Life of Queen Creek and similar efforts after her mother passed away.
She said she’s fortunate a specialist decided the parameters of a mammogram were too narrow, insisting on a redo that revealed another cancerous part of her breast that had been missed the first time. She also had to persuade a radiologist that even though she’d had a mastectomy, a later mammogram should include all parts of her chest, though chest-wall breast cancer is rare.
“There’s a lot to learn, and a younger woman or new cancer patient might not know what to ask,” Sandra Parkinson said. “So I stay involved partly to educate everyone on all the things to watch out for.”
Sandra Parkinson said she’s read about adolescents being diagnosed with breast cancer. She feels any individuals who have formed breasts should at least be self-examining. She also raised sons who she described as “big boys,” pointing out that heavier men of all ages should check for lumps and consider mammograms as well.
She said the Queen Creek Relay for Life committee typically finds roles for all newcomers.
“After, like, our first meeting, we already were involved,” she said.
Sandra Parkinson said she’s stepped back from Relay for Life to deal with other concerns in her life. Her sister, Tina, said Nov. 5 Queen Creek Relay for Life event might be one of the last, as the group has lost so many members. Some have passed away, she said.
“A cure would be nice,” Tina Parkinson said, referring to goals within the cancer patient and caregiver world. “We are always looking for drivers (to take cancer patients to and from clinics and hospitals). But mainly, we want women to understand there are other women to talk to, many of whom have been through this. They don’t have to do it alone.”
A survivor honoree
Cynthia Kotsay-Apodaca is a mother of four, grandmother of two and a founder of a promotional modeling agency who found a lump in her breast in 2017. Now five years cancer-free, she was chosen as the Making Strides for Breast Cancer’s 2022 survivor honoree for its Oct. 22 walk event at Tempe Beach Park.
“I feel very honored that they have chosen me to represent them,” Kotsay-Apodaca said. “It has been a lot of fun meeting so many other survivors as well as sharing my story.
Kotsay-Apodaca said she has partnered with them for the last years with the company she helps run, Tea of a Kind. The company helps sponsor fundraisers and cancer awareness events and gives a percentage of its profits to Making Strides.
“As a survivor, I am passionate about the cause and giving back,” Kotsay-Apodaca said. “Thankfully, it was stage 1 cancer, but it was aggressive, so I had to do radiation and chemo.”
Kotsay-Apodaca some women are reluctant to get mammograms — or even to self-examine monthly for lumps — because they are afraid.
“I tell them my story and let them know I saved my life,” she said. “I went in immediately when I found a lump. If I would have waited and it progressed to stage 4, I might not be sitting here today.”
Kotsay-Apodaca likes the idea of monthly buddy checks and encourages women to continue to get screened.
“Whatever system works for you, as long as you are checking,” she said. “I don’t necessarily do the ‘buddy check’ but I do remind my family and friends all of the time to do a self examination while in the shower.”
Kotsay-Apodaca will be speaking at the Oct. 22 event. She’s had some practice, in recent years, making public appearances and statements about her recovery.
“I’m sure I will be nervous when I get up there, but I have been doing a few interviews lately,” she said. “At the (Oct. 9) Arizona Cardinals game, I was on the Jumbotron speaking right before I got to ring the big red siren. So for the 22nd, I am really looking forward to speaking and celebrating with all of the other survivors.”
Banner Health offers a genetic counseling program. It uses a blood sample to determine if people have a genetic mutation that puts them in the 5% to 10% of the population genetically predisposed to getting cancer.
Anna Vercruyssen is a cancer genetic counselor at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center. She said not only do younger generations tend to talk more openly with each other and with elders about family medical history, but such information has become more widely known and distributed in the digital age.
“As we go back generations, people tended to not share information,” she said. “Technology has changed has information moves and is complied and stored.”
Vercruyssen said all generations of Arizonans tend to be honest with their doctors. That’s why many genetic counseling referrals come from either primary care providers or surgeons who have encountered a cancer patient, knowing the patient and/or their family members want to know the risks for those closely related.
“We really only deal with a three-generation family tree,” she said. “Any further back than grandparents, and the genetic distance is too great to be useful.”
Vercruyssen said the value of testing is “immense.” Not only can people, armed with genetic risk of disease, plan ahead for testing and early detection, they can present that information to medical and insurance professionals.
“We haven’t seen too much trouble with procedures like mammograms being covered,” she said. “Sometimes, however, adding MRIs might be tricky. Colonoscopies are sometimes a challenge to get covered for a younger patient.”
Vercruyssen said even if a person turns out to test negative for a genetic mutation, a history of cancer among close family members would still lead to advice to get screened early and often throughout adulthood. Some mutations might make it tough to become cancer-free, even with treatment.
“Some gene mutations cause cancer to be more aggressive,” she said. “It depends on the gene and the family.”